Some of the biggest draws to Orkney are the world class historic attractions and in particular the sites that make up the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These are probably some of the places that I get asked about the most so I was excited to cover them on the latest Orkney 'See You at the Weekend' itinerary. The heritage sites include the Ring of Brodgar, Skara Brae, the Standing Stones of Stenness and Maeshowe, along with a number of unexcavated burial, ceremonial and settlement sites.
I often get asked by visitors to Scotland why they should include Orkney in their vacation and there are many reasons. However, if ancient history is your thing then I can guarantee you will find nowhere else in the country as rich in significant archaeological attractions as on these islands. It is always a sobering thought to remember that many of these monuments are significantly older than the Egyptian pyramids.
If you want to discover some of the Neolithic highlights then this 1 day itinerary is for you.
ABOUT THE ITINERARY AND MY ADVICE
This itinerary is one of several autumn and spring themed day trip ideas that are being introduced by Destination Orkney over the coming months as part of their 'See You at The Weekend' campaign. I'll be trying them all out so stay tuned for lots more Orkney inspiration from me.
If you intend on following the full World Heritage itinerary then I would advise some advance planning as you will need to take in to consideration opening times and book a place on the Maeshowe tour. Due to these variables it is unlikely that your route will be exactly the same order as mine. I've included a list of the locations below, with a map at the bottom of the page.
ORKNEY WORLD HERITAGE ITINERARY LOCATIONS
Stones of Stenness
One of the best places to start your day is at the Standing Stones of Stenness which may be the earliest henge monument in the British Isles. As there are only four stones remaining, they don't attract as much attention as the nearby Ring of Brodgar despite their massive size. I find this a shame as they form part of what was once a significant site, dating back to 3100 to 2900 BC which precedes the Ring of Brodgar by about 500 years.
The remaining stones were part of an oval-shaped setting that once consisted of up to 12 stones, although it is thought the site was never completed and may have been built over generations. The surrounding ditch is now gone, however the central hearth remains. Evidence recovered shows Neolithic people once cooked and ate at the site.
As for its purpose, the best guesses are that it was used for ceremonies or rituals. With the hearth as a focal point, you can almost imagine the smell of smoke and people gathering around the light and warmth of the flames.
There is free access to the site at all times, however you can join a free guided tour on Wednesday mornings from 10 - 11am if you want to learn more. There is no need to book, just turn up on the day.
Barnhouse Neolithic Settlement
Just next to the Stones of Stenness are the remains of Barnhouse Neolithic Settlement which is a fairly recent Orkney find, having only been discovered in 1984. The settlement was occupied around 3200 - 2900 BC, the same time as the nearby stone monuments, including the Stones of Stenness. This means it is likely the inhabitants would have used or even built the circle.
Although the dwellings date back to a similar period as Skara Brae, it would be fair to say there is much less to see here. However, you can make out some similarities in the features including the stone furniture, box-beds and central hearths. Two of the buildings were found to be larger and more impressive than the others. This has led to theories that they were designed for more important members of the community or for ceremonial purposes.
The village appears to have been demolished at the end of its use and the reasons for this are just one of the many mysteries here.
Barnhouse has free access at all times and is reached by a gate and a path behind the Stones of Stenness.
The Watchstone and the Ness of Brodgar
As you travel from the Stones of Stenness and Barnhouse Settlement towards the Ring of Brodgar you will pass a large standing stone by the left side of the road. This is known as the Watchstone, one of at least 2 stones that stood here. It just adds to the feeling of everything here being connected as part of a bigger complex.
You will also pass the Ness of Brodgar which is one of the most recent and exciting archaeological discoveries on Orkney, with excavations only commencing in 2004 and still ongoing. However it is already said to be one of the most important sites in Neolithic Britain. Finds so far include decorated pottery, polished stone axes, a carved stone ball and a high number of carved stone slabs, some of which have traces of colour.
Unfortunately, the site is covered over for most of the year and only open for guided tours during July and August. I've yet to visit but it is top of my bucket-list for this summer!
Ring of Brodgar
The biggest and most photographed of the monuments has to be Ring of Brodgar. It is the third largest stone circle in the British Isles at 104 metres wide and it was originally made up of 60 stones. In 1854 only 13 stones were recorded as standing, however since then some of them have been re-erected and there are now 27 upright stones.
The stones here are not as tall as those at Stenness, however the large number of them and size of the circle is impressive. The monument was one of the first places to be protected as a site of historical interest in the British Isles back in 1882.
The Ring of Brodgar is a classic henge site with a surrounding ditch. The site has never been properly excavated although it is believed construction took place around 2500 to 2000 BC. As with Stenness it is believed to have been built over a considerable period of time and it is worth remembering that the site we know today would only have existed in the final stages of construction.
As for its purpose, best guesses are that is was used for ceremonies and would have formed part of a much bigger complex across the area. There area also many burials around the site and just to the south east lies a solitary stone known as the Comet Stone.
One other thing to look out for as you walk around is the historic graffiti on the stones which has been carved over the centuries, including some Viking runes.
There is free access to the site at all times and free guided tours on Thursdays at 1 pm. No booking is required, just meet in the car park.
Although I find all the Neolithic sites on Orkney fascinating in their own way, there is something about Skara Brae that really captures my imagination. It is almost unbelievable to think that this prehistoric site lay covered for 4000 years. Thanks to it being cocooned safely in the earth until a storm exposed it in 1850, it is now the best-preserved group of prehistoric houses in all of Western Europe.
The 8 structures dating back to between 3100 and 2500 BC, are linked together by passageways which means the occupants could move around without going outside. I can only imagine how dark it must have been even with all the fires blazing. Inside the houses are stone dressers, beds and furnishings which in many ways are the basic ancient equivalent to the items we furnish our houses with today.
The structures are surrounded by middens which when excavated revealed much abut the every day life of the Skara Brae residents. We know that they were farmers, hunters and fishermen thanks to the discovery of bones, seeds and shells. Other items found on the site include jewellery, clay pottery and tools made from stone, antler and bone. Some of the most mysterious objects discovered are carved stone balls which you can see in the visitor centre.
Structure 8 is slightly different to the rest and it is believed this was a workshop due to its design and items found including debris from pottery manufacture.
There are a couple of things that still aren't known about Skara Brae. Experts are unsure of the roof style and materials but the biggest mystery is the reason why the settlement was abandoned after 600 years of occupation.
The powerful weather elements that played a part in covering over and then exposing Skara Brae are its current biggest threat. Coastal erosion means that the sea continues to encroach ever closer to the site although steps have been taken to minimise the damage. It is even possible that other dwellings have already been lost to erosion. Another issue is the huge increase in visitor numbers which is something that is also being monitored and one of the reasons it is important to stay on the marked paths.
Skara Brae is looked after by Historic Scotland and there is an entry fee unless you are an Historic Scotland member. There is also a cafe and small visitor centre with some of the artefacts found at the site on display.
I recommend visiting first thing in the morning or off-season as it can get very busy in the summer. From April to October, your ticket also gives you entry to Skaill House. Orkney’s finest mansion, and the home of the man who discovered Skara Brae.
The round grassy mound of Maeshowe can be spotted from a distance as it stands out against the otherwise flat landscape that surrounds it. However, I discovered that it hasn't always taken this form. In recent times a concrete roof was added and the outer mound sculpted in to the distinctive shape that you see today. Prior to this, illustrations show it as looking more conical.
The outside gives no clue to the atmospheric interior which is accessed via a low passageway. Once inside the central chamber rises well above standing height and it is possible to fully appreciate the complex construction which is estimated to have taken 100,000 man hours to complete.
Much of the cairn consists of single giant sandstone slabs, some of which weigh up to 3 tonnes. Considering Maeshowe dates back 5000 years, manoeuvring and positioning them in a time before machinery was invented must have been no easy feat.
This is part of the reason it is considered to be one of the finest Neolithic buildings to survive in Europe. As with all these structures we can only guess at its purpose although the winter solstice does seem to hold a significant connection. For 3 weeks before and after the shortest day of the year, the setting sun aligns with the entrance passage and illuminates the back of the central chamber.
Maeshowe is thought to have only been in use for several hundred years before it was closed up. 3000 years later we know that Vikings broke in to the tomb as they left their marks on the walls. Their graffiti is the largest collection of runic inscriptions to survive outside of Scandinavia and although much of it is just the names of the Norsemen, some of it is quite rude!
Maeshowe can only be visited on a guided tour and it is important to book in advance through Historic Scotland as they are quickly booked up in the peak tourist season.
My final stop took me to Stromness Museum to see the Ness of Brodgar exhibition which closes at the end of the month. However there are other Neolithic artefacts on display and my own favourite is the 'Skara Brae Buddo' which was found at the site in the 1860s.
It is a Neolithic figurine carved from whalebone with eyes, mouth and navel. It might be primitive but I love the fact it is a more personal connection to the past - who carved it, who owned it? We'll never know but it does make you wonder.
There are many other exhibits to visit in the museum covering different periods of Orkney's history so allow yourself some time to explore.
There is an entry fee to the museum and I recommend checking their website for current opening times.
MY MAP OF ALL THE LOCATIONS MENTIONED
Disclaimer - This blog post is part of a sponsored partnership with Destination Orkney to promote their weekend itineraries, however as always all experiences and opinions are based on my own personal experience
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